Science turns us into dodos, survey shows, and flies are bald

July 07, 1996|By Dave Barry | Dave Barry,Knight-Ridder News Service

YOU DON'T realize it, but you are constantly enjoying the benefits of science.

For example, when you turn on the radio, you take it for granted that music will come out, but do you ever stop to think that this miracle would not be possible without the work of scientists?

That's right: There are tiny scientists inside that radio, playing instruments!

A similar principle is used in automatic bank-teller machines, which is why they frequently say: "Sorry, out of service." They're too embarrassed to say: "Sorry, tiny scientist going to the bathroom."

Yes, science plays a vital role in your life; but when it comes to scientific knowledge, there's an excellent chance that you're a moron.

I base this statement on a recent survey conducted by the National Science Foundation, which showed that the average American does not understand basic scientific principles.

Naturally the news media reported this finding as though it was shocking, which is silly.

This is, after all, a nation that has produced tournament bass fishing and the Home Shopping Channel; we should be shocked that the average American still knows how to walk erect.

But the point is that we have a scientific illiteracy problem in this nation, and you could be a part of it.

To find out, see if you can answer these three actual questions from the National Science Foundation survey:

1. True or false: The earliest human beings lived at the same time as the dinosaurs.

2. Which travels faster, light or sound?

3. Explain, in your own words: What is DNA?

All finished? Now let's look at the correct answers:

1. False. The truth is that the dinosaurs had been dead for over a week before the first human came along, probably in the form of Bob Dole. Yet most Americans firmly believe that humans and dinosaurs once co-existed.

This misconception arose from the many absurdly inaccurate fictional depictions of cave-man life, such as the TV cartoon show "The Flintstones," in which the Flintstones own a pet dinosaur named Dino.

But paleontologists, who can determine the age of fossils with high degree of accuracy using a technique called carbon dating, have known for many years that Dino is actually another character wearing a costume.

"We think it's Barney," the paleontologists announced recently, "but we can't say for sure until we get another government grant."

2. To answer the light-vs.-sound question, consider what you observe when a thunderstorm is approaching and a bolt of lightning strikes.

First you see the lightning bolt; then you hear thunder; then you hear a scream if the lightning bolt has struck a person; then you hear a loud cheer from bystanders if the person was George Steinbrenner.

This tells us that light travels faster than sound, because light goes straight down from the sky and is therefore attracted by gravity; whereas sound goes sideways and is slowed down by friction with the Earth's rotation, also known as peristalsis, or the Greenhouse Effect.

3. DNA is an abbreviation for deoxyribonucleicantidisesta- blishmentarianism, a complex string of syllables that is found inside your body in tiny little genes called chromosomes.

Biologists often refer to DNA as "The Body's Secret Handshake," because the information encoded in your DNA determines your unique biological characteristics, such as sex, eye color, age and Social Security number.

There is surprisingly little difference between the DNA found in humans and that found in other species such as H. Ross Perot.

This fact has led to research that could benefit mankind, most notably a series of experiments in which biologists chemically altered the DNA in fruit flies in an effort to isolate the gene that causes baldness.

The biologists reasoned that fruit flies must contain this gene, because virtually all of them (the fruit flies) (also the biologists) are bald.

This work took nine years and cost $31 million, but the results were impressive: When a group of fruit flies with normal DNA was compared with a group with altered DNA, both groups were found to consist of little random black smears, because the only way the biologists could get them to hold still was to whack them with rolled-up copies of Scientific American.

Nevertheless the biologists believe that they are on the right track.

"We think it's Barney wearing a Dino costume," they announced recently in a press conference that led to allegations of plagiarism from angry paleontologists, "but we can't say for sure until we get another government grant."

So those are your correct answers.

If you did poorly, you're not alone; the National Science Foundation reports that only 25 percent of the people surveyed, or 1 in 6, passed the quiz.

And if you think that's a pathetic commentary on our national intelligence, you should see all the mail I'm going to get in which people will send me this column with the words "25 percent" and "1 in 6" circled and a snotty note informing me that this is incorrect.

So there's no question about it: Scientific illiteracy is definitely a major problem in America. And as the saying goes: "If you're not part of the solution, you're a newspaper columnist."

So I feel I've done my part.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to shake the radio.

Pub Date: 7/07/96

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